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The write impression: sloppy, murky writing can cost insurers millions in lost productivity and expose them to bad-faith lawsuits.

Insurers can avoid potential problems by cleaning up poor grammar, inappropriate tone and muddy writing in their official correspondence with policyholders. The following examples, gleaned from more than 5,000 letters in the claims, underwriting, loss control, workers' compensation and reinsurance sectors from a variety of carriers, third-party administrators and independent adjusting firms, illustrate pitfalls to avoid.

* An inadvertently negative closing to a letter written to an insured causes him to call his attorney and file a lawsuit.

* A patronizing letter filled with zingers is sent to an opposing attorney, and a settlement gets delayed three months because of the saber rattling.

* A claims letter filled with stodgy phrases, punctuation errors, vagueness and lengthy paragraphs causes an insured to circle each writing problem and forward the letter to the president of the company.

* In a bad-faith lawsuit, a few angry comments written in log notes are revealed in court by the claimant's attorney, resulting in a $950,000 payout to the claimant.

Writing problems often occur when poor writers try to adapt to form letters. Often these insurance professionals retain legalese phrases, such as "under separate cover," "enclosed please find," or "as per," and go on to create phrases that cause insureds to reach for the phone. It may not show up on a ledger sheet, but the time wasted by poor writing will probably cost insurance firms more than $50 million in lost productivity in 2003. Even more money is lost when you count the bad-faith lawsuits that will cause high punitive damages--all because file notes, an e-mail, or a claims letter became a "nastygram."

These are three examples of inappropriate tone in individual sentences.

* One letter, sent to a retirement fund member, had such a vague and fuzzy tone in its description of a retirement payout that the member sued and received a substantially larger payout at retirement.

* A letter from an underwriter used the word "failure" five times, "regretfully" four times, "unfortunately" three times, and "cannot" six times.

* Another letter begins, "Our investigation into your claim indicates that you may have suffered some damage to your property due to mold. It is our understanding that several items of property were discarded prior to our inspection. We could not confirm mold contamination on the property we inspected." After going through the details of the claim, including chunks of policy language, the writer never once comes out and says the claim's denial is based on no evidence of a covered cause of loss. In this letter, the somewhat nebulous word "indicates" is used six times.

Judgmental words and phrases are not the only elements in writing that set less than a professional tone. Punctuation and grammatical errors are an embarrassment and set a bad tone. There are thousands of these errors embedded in daily letters sent from top-rated carriers.

Which errors are most common? Comma errors occur more frequently in insurance letters than all other punctuation errors combined. Example: "This should include how the product works, in detail on how the electrolysis process works." That murky sentence caused a game of telephone tag that went on for two days. The writer could have written: "This should include how the product works, specifically the electrolysis process."

When faulty grammar and shaky style taint a thought, communication comes to a halt. For example, in the following description, it's difficult to understand what is being requested. "A copy of the documents and letters sent to you by either Thomas Corp. or the EPA with respect to the studies your client may have on file. That should include any notes our insured made with respect to any comments made by Thomas Corp. or EPA."

What does "that" refer to? The copy of the documents? If that's correct, then is the writer saying that these notes are found in the copy? Of course, the notes are a separate item and should never have been linked to the preceding sentence. Confusion!

Multiply that one error by all the errors produced by that same writer in a day, a week, a career, and it is easy to understand why insurers shouldn't become complacent about written documents. Recognizing the importance of clear writing in claims, some midsized insurers insist that their adjusters attend a writing course every three years just to stay fresh.

With so many issues vying for attention among insurance professionals, why should writing skills be a training priority? It's simple: a company's letters may be the only way in which a customer comes to know the company. If those letters make a bad impression or are unclear or stodgy or tough, the image of the company suffers, time is wasted, and customers are put off or confused. If the company's letters come to the point and are conversational, clear and helpful, customers are happier and the staff works more efficiently. Everyone wins.

RELATED ARTICLE: Cleaning Up the Mud

Muddy writing and an inappropriate tone in letters to policyholders can cause problems, such as lawsuits and drawn-out claims for insurers. Consider the following problem sentences and how to avoid their pitfalls.

Example: "This letter will follow up yours of March 17, 2002."

If the writer had read that sentence slowly, he or she might have reconsidered the unfortunate phrasing.

Example: "We have asked you repeatedly to choose a body shop, and because you failed to respond, we didn't know what else to do but to present you with an offer based on the Crawford estimate."

The writer beats up the reader with words like "repeatedly" and "failed," and then goes further into emotional chaos by saying "we didn't know what else to do."

Example: "Should you desire any further information, please do not hesitate to contact the undersigned."

This all-too-common sentence is unprofessional and stodgy. While attorneys are there to protect a company's interest, do not assume that an attorney is, by divine right, capable of creating prose designed to win customers and keep them.

Example: "Given the substantial income your client produced subsequent to the accident, we believe your allegations of future lost wages are nothing more than smoke and mirrors."

Be careful. There's a difference between being assertive and being aggressive. This writer steps over that line by using the phrase "smoke and mirrors."

Tone Tips

Use positive instead of negative words. It seems obvious, but so many problems occur because writers default to the negative way of phrasing a thought. Instead of "John has neglected to get his car inspected," write, "John has not had his car inspected," or "John needs to have his car inspected."

Don't write when you're angry. You may regret it in the morning. In a claims environment in which e-mail is discoverable by an opposing attorney, don't be too quick to press the "send" button. Give yourself a chance to cool down. Is your reality the only possible reality? Part of being professional is not feeling compelled to return fire.

Give your reader a reason to comply before making a request. Take a look at a handful of letters in your department, and you will probably see requests for information that offer little motivation for the reader to cooperate. The writer assumes that because he or she would like more information, the reader will hop to it, but life doesn't work that way. You must provide a bit of motivation before piling on requests that may cost the reader time and anguish.

Gary Blake is director of The Communication Workshop, Port Washington, N.Y., and author of The Elements of Business Writing.
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Article Details
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Author:Blake, Gary
Publication:Best's Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2003
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